Nobel Prizes Underscore Value of Basic Science Research
CONGRESSIONAL supporters have saved space-station funding from its critics. Supporters of the superconducting supercollider particle accelerator are working to save its funding too.
But who will save United States basic science research?
There's a loss of faith in the inherent value of unfettered basic science both within Congress and in the Clinton administration. In the name of economic competitiveness, the faithless would try to channel the work of creative scientists into pursuit of predetermined ``strategic'' goals.
Taken to the extreme that some competitiveness prophets now advocate, this policy would emasculate what now is the strongest basic-research enterprise in the world.
It's no accident that this year's Nobel prizes in science are going largely to scientists in the United States. Decades of across-the-board support have enabled United States scientists to be preeminent in every major research field.
Yet the Senate subcommittee that deals with the National Science Foundation now recommends that at least 60 percent of the agency's research programs should be strategic in nature. It warns NSF not to ``shroud curiosity-driven activities under the rubric of strategic activities.'' It further specifies that NSF set annual, quantifiable performance milestones for each of these programs.
Fortunately, this misguided recommendation is not binding. It would be micromanagement of the worst sort. Yet it reflects widespread disenchantment with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
Senator John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia - chairman of the Senate Science, Technology, and Space Committee - has said science-funding agencies must ``be more relevant to competitiveness.'' He added that this view is shared by the Clinton administration.
The Nobel prizes put that view in perspective.
Philip A. Sharp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and British biochemist Richard J. Roberts with New England Biolabs in Massachusetts share the medicine prize for discovering that genetic instructions are ``written'' in discontinuous pieces.
Michael Smith of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver shares the chemistry prize with Kary B. Mullis of La Jolla, Calif. Dr. Smith developed ways to splice foreign DNA into an organism's genetic instructions. Dr. Mullis developed a technique for making multiple copies of tiny bits of DNA while he was working at Cetus Corporation in Emeryville, Calif.
These discoveries have revolutionized molecular biology and biotechnology. Nothing could be more relevant to economic competitiveness. Yet they, by and large, were made in the pursuit of ``curiosity-driven'' research.
Dr. Mullis, for example, developed his DNA multiplication technique for his own research purposes. It now is standard in biotechnology. In fact, it is the technique used to clone dinosaur DNA in the science-fiction film Jurassic Park.
In physics, Joseph H. Taylor and Russell A. Hulse at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., share the prize for discovery of, and work with, a binary pulsar. This is a pair of superdense stars that emit regular pulses of radiation. Their powerful gravity allows astronomers to study effects of Einstein's general theory of relativity, such as the warping of space time. This has no economic relevance. But it is a major scientific development.
It's hard to imagine how such work could proceed if supporting agencies had to justify it in terms of economic competitiveness and progress toward predetermined annual milestones.
General basic science lacks the powerful constituencies that the space station or supercollider enjoy. Neverless, Congress and the Clinton administration should beware of crippling the creative research that underlies their country's scientific strength.